Sensitive Parenting

baby sleepingResearch shows that consistent sensitivity from parents has a positive influence on all domains of infants’ development. Parental sensitivity refers to a parent’s ability to be in tune with their infant’s cues and signals and respond correctly and consistently. Parental sensitivity and responsiveness includes providing support and care during distress, encouraging confidence and agency of the child1, being prompt, treating infants as capable of intentions.2 Infants learn best when interacting with others who are aware of them and responsive to them. Parents should strive to be sensitive to their infants as this will foster optimum development of their infant and inspire their infant to become the best they can be.

Here are some specific discoveries the research has uncovered about sensitive parents.

  • Cognitive development
    • Sensitive parents provide a stimulating interactive environment and a supportive emotional climate for children. This promotes a child’s “exploration of her surroundings, a developmentally appropriate pattern of reciprocal verbal and non-verbal exchanges, and reward in response to achievement as well as encouragement in response to failure.”1
    • With sensitive parents, children feel secure and confident thus they spend more time exploring and experiencing different situations that foster cognitive development.1,3,4 This security allows the child to concentrate and master new skills.5
    • “A sensitive caregiving environment likely provides an optimal emotional context for children’s early brain maturation and cognitive development.”1
    • Parenting behaviors that have been associated with child cognitive development include…
      • Linguistic and cognitive stimulation1,2
      • Quality physical care1
      • Reciprocal engagement1
      • Parent–child synchrony1
      • Sensitivity1
      • Positive engagement1
      • Interpreting the infant’s actions as meaningful2
      • Treating the infant as an intentional agent2
      • Always talking to the infant while doing other things6
      • Reading to the infant6
      • Showing pictures to the infant6
    • Parental behaviors that promote social and emotional development2 are…
      • Responding promptly to a cry recognized as signaling distress
      • Comforting the infant when upset
      • Being available for interaction
    • Fathers
      • “Fathers were just as sensitive, positive, and cognitively stimulating as mothers,” and both mothers’ and fathers’ sensitivity predicted children’s cognitive scores now and in the future7
      • Fathers contribute differently than mothers to an infant’s development.5
        • Fathers provide sensitive support during infant’s exploration by being sensitive to emotions, being supportive, cooperating and providing scaffolding.
      • Counters negative influences: Paternal sensitivity offset the negative effects of maternal anxiety on cognitive development8
      • Timing of sensitivity: Both early and later parental sensitivity can predict infant’s cognitive development.1,3,4
      • Sensitive parents help their children develop a sense of self-efficacy.3
      • Joint attention: When mothers are responsive to their children, it helps them “share a way of looking at the world,” which then helps “children to interpret and make sense of adult utterances during parent–child conversation.”3

So what can parents do?

  • Talk to your infant while you are doing other things.
  • Take care of your infant physically; feed them, bath them, keep them safe.
  • Take time to interact with your infant positively.
  • Respond promptly to your infant’s signals correctly and consistently.
  • Comfort your infant.
  • Read to your children; show them pictures.
  • Be an involved father no matter how amazing the mother is.

Choose to be a sensitive parent today! Make an effort to be responsive to your infant no matter what your parenting has been in the past. Sensitive parenting encourages optimal development no matter when that sensitivity occurs.

For more information see:

1 Roger Mills-Koonce, W., Willoughby, M. T., Zvara, B., Barnett, M., Gustafsson, H., & Cox, M. J. (2015). Mothers’ and fathers’ sensitivity and children’s cognitive development in low-income, rural families. Journal of Applied Developmental Psychology, 38, 1-10. doi:10.1016/j.appdev.2015.01.001

2 Page, M., Wilhelm, M. S., Gamble, W. C., & Card, N. A. (2010). A comparison of maternal sensitivity and verbal stimulation as unique predictors of infant social–emotional and cognitive development. Infant Behavior and Development, 33, 101-110. doi:10.1016/j.infbeh.2009.12.001

3 Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Bornstein, M. H., & Baumwell, L. (2001). Maternal responsiveness and children’s achievement of language milestones. Child Development, 72(3), 748.

4 McFadden, K. E., & Tamis-Lemonda, C. S. (2013). Maternal responsiveness, intrusiveness, and negativity during play with infants: Contextual associations and infant cognitive status in A low-income sample. Infant Mental Health Journal, 34(1), 80-92. doi:10.1002/imhj.21376

5 Hall, R. A. S., De Waard, I. E. M., Tooten, A., Hoffenkamp, H. N., Vingerhoets, A. J. J. M., & van Bakel, H. J. A. (2014). From the father’s point of view: How father’s representations of the infant impact on father–infant interaction and infant development. Early Human Development, 90, 877-883. doi:10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2014.09.010

6 Murray, A., & Egan, S. M. (2014). Does reading to infants benefit their cognitive development at 9-months-old? An investigation using a large birth cohort survey. Child Language Teaching & Therapy, 30(3), 303-315. doi:10.1177/0265659013513813

7 Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Shannon, J. D., Cabrera, N. J., & Lamb, M. E. (2004). Fathers and mothers at play with their 2- and 3-year-olds: Contributions to language and cognitive development. Child Development, 75(6), 1806-1820. doi:10.1111/j.1467-8624.2004.00818.x

8 Grant, K., McMahon, C., Reilly, N., & Austin, M. (2010). Maternal sensitivity moderates the impact of prenatal anxiety disorder on infant mental development. Early Human Development, 86, 551-556. doi:10.1016/j.earlhumdev.2010.07.004

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